Pubdate: Wed, 26 Jun 2019
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Alex Berenson


This was supposed to be the year full cannabis legalization in the
U.S. moved much closer to being a reality. Instead it has been a
disaster for advocates. Although Illinois legalized recreational use
on the final day of its legislative schedule, a half-dozen other
deep-blue states that were expected to legalize failed to
follow-including New York.

Advocates want to believe legalization on their terms, with few
restrictions on marketing and age limits potentially as low as 18,
remains inevitable. Polls show that between 62% and 66% of Americans
support legalization. But cannabis supporters are wrong, and the
pushback against marijuana has only begun.

Why? Because teen use is on the rise. And the experience of the
1970s-the last time cannabis advocates believed they might win full
national acceptance-shows that the strongest voices against cannabis
use aren't police officers or even physicians. They're parents.

As teenage use of cannabis exploded during the 1970s, many parents
became deeply concerned. The drug seemed to damage their children's
motivation, memory and grades. National Families in Action, a
nonprofit, became a powerful voice against the drug. By 1980 the U.S.
had turned against cannabis.

Canny marketing from advocates and the endorsement of much of the
media have swung the pendulum the opposite way in the last 15 years.
Use has soared. But until recently, teenagers were the exception.
Federal data show adolescent use barely budged-partly because teen
cigarette smoking fell so fast after 2000, and partly because the
industry has been more careful about teen marketing.

In the past year or two, though, many schools have reported a spike in
teen cannabis use. The increase is likely related to the rise in
e-cigarettes and nicotine vaping, as well as to the industry's resumed
marketing push. Medical claims made for marijuana may also have led
adolescents to believe the drug is safe.

In fact, cannabis is more dangerous to teenagers than it has ever
been. It contains far more THC-the chemical responsible for the drug's
high and its psychiatric risks-along with less CBD, a non-psychoactive
chemical that may reduce some of THC's negative effects. In 1980
cannabis typically contained less than 1.5% THC; these days cannabis
often contains between 18% and 25% THC. Many users prefer
semi-synthetic extracts that are between 60% and 90% THC.

Besides damaging motivation or memory, the new superhigh-THC, low-CBD
products carry serious psychiatric and abuse risks. New studies show
they increase the risk of severe psychotic breaks as much as fourfold.
Since the publication in January of my book about marijuana, I have
been contacted by at least a dozen parents whose children suffered
breaks not long after starting use.

Not coincidentally, in states where legalization failed this year,
wealthier suburban lawmakers proved a crucial political stumbling
block. Because of the cost of vaping, the habit seems to be more
attractive to upper-middle class kids, and their parents are now
seeing marijuana's real risks up close. As that knowledge spreads, the
media is likely to take a more skeptical stance, and national support
for legalization will shrink.

The change will happen slowly. Meantime, the current situation-about a
quarter of American adults live in states where cannabis has been
legalized, and many of the rest have easy access through dubious
"medical" authorizations-is unstable at best. The legal American
cannabis industry now has several billion dollars in revenue annually
but no access to the banking system, and adult cannabis users can go
from law-abiding citizens to criminals merely by crossing a state
line. The federal government and states must try to get on the same

As advocates see public opinion turn, there may be an opportunity for
a narrow compromise around adult legalization. It would involve strict
and permanent limits on marketing, such as a ban on any advertising or
sponsorship of public events; strong warning labels; and a well-funded
campaign to discourage use modeled on successful anti-tobacco
campaigns; a minimum age limit of 23 to 25, given that marijuana
appears to pose special dangers to developing brains;
decriminalization for younger users, who need help more than
punishment; a prohibition against cannabis suppliers claiming unproven
medical benefits; and possible potency limits.

Such a deal won't be acceptable to the for-profit parts of the
industry, because it would end the fantasy that the U.S. cannabis
market might one day reach $100 billion in annual sales. But other
advocates, like the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, would likely
support such a compromise. It would meet their core goal, enshrining
the right of American adults to use cannabis legally, while ending
criminal penalties for younger users. It would also acknowledge the
emerging scientific consensus that cannabis use carries serious
psychiatric risks, especially to developing brains.

Those pushing legalization will soon realize that compromise is the
only winning play. Children matter more to parents than ideology. If
cannabis advocates don't agree to reasonable limits, they may wake up
one day to find that 2019 wasn't the end of the beginning of
legalization, but the beginning of the end.

Mr. Berenson is author of "Tell Your Children: The Truth About 
Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence."
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